The U.S. Air Force received a vital boost to its satellite communications capacity supply on a clear evening in mid-January, when a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket lofted its fourth Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-4) satellite from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The $464 million Boeing-built satellite, capable of providing 10 times the communications capacity of its predecessor system, represents a major element in the U.S. military’s mission to both support tactical communications to and between ground forces and relay data and imagery from UAVs.
The successful launch mission brought on a deep sense of relief and satisfaction for the Pentagon, “especially knowing how important the constellation is to our troops in the field. WGS is a big upgrade for our nation,” says Air Force Capt. Tim Trimailo, who directs the military’s WGS operations and sustainment program. “We can expand the WGS system and provide contact information for sustainable combat commanders worldwide. This will help the soldiers ensure the process of communication. Even if critical nodes are disabled, troops will still be able to access vital communication links at all times.”
Protection of UAV Programs
The WGS-4 launch also symbolizes the U.S. military’s stalwart protection of two key programs throughout the current era of drastic budget cuts — WGS satellites and UAVs, which represent a major source of satellite communications demand from the government sector. A single Global Hawk aircraft consumes 500 Mbps of capacity, which is five times the total bandwidth used by the U.S. military during the first Gulf War.
The Pentagon’s plan to reduce military spending by $487 billion in the next decade was met with serious concern in the space sector after it was published as part of the military’s 2013 full-year budget. While total U.S. defense spending is expected to decline 22 percent from its peak in 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense has specifically highlighted its defense of UAV program funding.
While the defense budget does not exactly spell out which programs will receive additional spending, UAV and other electronic warfare and communications satellite programs are likely to benefit. In a budget strategy document issued in February, the military urged Congress to support a sufficient amount of trained personnel, infrastructure and platforms in order to sustain 65 Air Force MQ 1/9 combat air patrols (CAPs) with a surge capacity of 85. “The Predator aircraft was retained longer than previously planned, allowing us to slow the buy of the Reaper aircraft and gain some savings,” the document says. “We also protected funding for the Army’s air system, Gray Eagle.”
Aside from the cancellation of the Global Hawk UAV program, which had been plagued by severe cost overruns, the Pentagon intends to increase spending on UAVs to support a minimum of 65 combat air patrols. This is good news for the satellite industry, as it establishes a firm belief from both ends of the military and policy process that dominance of space is expected to be a key discriminator on future battlefields. The protection of UAV funding, says Trimailo, should be extended for needed upgrades to the GPS, SBIRS and AEHF programs.
How does this develop impact commercial providers? Besides the military’s well-published reliance on commercial satcom, “the insatiable demand for bandwidth in support of high-definition video, for everything from UAV missions to maintaining troop morale, is also driving a faster pace of technology adoption,” says Harris CapRock president David Myers.
Prime examples of the UAV-driven technology push can be found in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) joint initiative with the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center’s Atlantic and Northwest UAV Propulsion division to build an advanced UAV with the help of private-sector engineers. The UAVForge initiative asked engineers and designers for their ideas and received submissions from more than 1,400 teams. Some critics and defense contractors have called the UAVForge program a mere “crowd-sourcing” strategy, DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone says the program is just one way to cut back on parts of the defense budget while meeting future requirements. “Small UAVs play a critical role in modern military operations,” he says. “The next generation of these aerial robotic systems needs to have enhanced takeoff and landing capabilities, better endurance, require less support equipment and be adaptable to mission needs in varying conditions. [UAVForge] encourages engineers to share ideas and problems they’ve encountered in the hope that they would build on each other’s ingenuity.”
Other UAV tech-related alliances are forming solely in the private sector. In February, AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), an operating unit of Textron Systems, announced a strategic partnership with satellite company ViaSat to align its advanced unmanned aircraft and command and control technologies with ViaSat’s integrated airborne and terrestrial satellite communications, as well as its IP-based networking and security technology. Under the agreement, the organizations intend to develop and mature beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications capabilities for AAI UAS’ current and next-generation UAV aircraft.